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May 13, 2009
Obama administration shakes up Afghanistan team

Stanley McChrystal will replace David McKiernan as the top military commander in Afghanistan. Photo: United States Joint Chiefs of Staff

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had asked for the resignation of the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan. Gates said new leadership was needed to go along with a new strategy to turn around the war.

The United States is in the process of deploying more than 20,000 additional Americans to fight the insurgents in Afghanistan. McKiernan will be replaced by Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, who currrently has a top administrative job with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Blogger Michael Yon explores why McKiernan was fired:

Every British officer I talk with asks what in the world happened with General McKiernan, and why was his relief performed so publicly.  I do not know.  And I do not personally know General McKiernan.  I do know that these ears have never heard someone speak a foul word about him, and I talk with lots of interesting people.  If he, McKiernan, was a bad general I would have heard about it.

However, General McKiernan did make some statements about additional troops to Afghanistan, and when he made those statements I remember thinking, “He’s going to get fired.”  And so those statements were the first thing that came to my mind.  McKiernan has been saying we need more troops than are already on the way.  I do not have the training or experience to say how many troops we need in Afghanistan, but I know we could use a lot more than we have there now.  Yet it did seem like General McKiernan was pushing the envelope.  That doesn’t make him a bad general in my eyes.  His envelope-pushing speaks of professional courage and honesty, but also one can imagine that leadership might want to keep some opinions in-house.

But another clue is something that Secretary Gates said to me privately.  Actually, LTG David Rodriguez was there, and Rodriguez is tapped to take the number two spot in Afghanistan.   Secretary Gates said that his number one concern for Afghanistan is that we will lose the support of the Afghan people.  The recent loss of a great number of Afghans was undoubtedly upsetting for Secretary Gates and many others. […]

Personally, I didn’t like seeing General McKiernan get publicly relieved.  A quiet disembarkation might have been better.  After all, he is a true American who defended the United States.  To me, McKiernan will be known as a man who did his duty, not as the General who got relieved.

Fred Kaplan of Slate’s “War Stories” blog calls the move “a very big deal,” writing:

McKiernan’s ouster signals a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan. And it means that the war is now, unequivocally, “Obama’s war.” The president has decided to set a new course, not merely to muddle through the next six months or so.

[…]An intellectual battle is now raging within the Army between an “old guard” that thinks about war in conventional, force-on-force terms and a “new guard” that focuses more on “asymmetric conflicts” and counterinsurgency.

[…]We’ve heard this kind of talk before, of course. Fresh, new, and determined don’t necessarily add up to victory. But the shift in command does mark a dramatic change from the uncertain muddle we’ve seen up to now. And Obama’s whole presidency may rise or fall on whether it succeeds.

Another blogger at “MilBlog” criticizes the firing of McKiernan: 

Gen. McKiernan is the right man at the right time in the right job. Only now are his ideas starting to be put in place. He needs, no – deserves – another year.

If true, I would be interested in the reasons and hope they are health related, as again – nothing against LtGen McChrystal – but General McKiernan is, well; the right man, right now.

The “Abu Muqawama” blog looks at the popularity of McKiernan and his successor: 

This tells me that President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Gen. Petraeus are as serious as a heart attack about a shift in strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was ruthless, and they were not about to do the George Casey thing whereby a commander is left in the theater long after he is considered to have grown ineffective.

The sad truth of the matter is that people have been calling for McKiernan’s head for some time now. Many of the people with whom I have spoken do not think that McKiernan “gets” the war in Afghanistan — or counterinsurgency warfare in general. There was very little confidence that — with McKiernan in charge in Afghanistan — we the United States had the varsity squad on the field.

That all changed today. I do not know if the war in Afghanistan is winnable. But I do know that Stan McChrystal is an automatic starter in anyone’s line-up.

[…]I heard rumors that McChrystal might replace McKiernan only last Friday, when a senior U.S. policy-maker cornered me and asked me what I thought of McChrystal. That’s kinda like asking a rifleman in the French Army what he thinks of Napoleon. Although I indeed served under McChrystal’scommand in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I do not know him personally and was but one cog in a giant machine at the time.

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